Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.
Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music. Then again, in the all consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier. It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought. It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses. The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.
– Marilynne Robinson, in her new collection of essays, saying again what needs to be said about what we are actively forgetting in these days of efficiency and productivity.
I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.
I have struggled with this my whole life.
This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.
People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.
How does the Catholic vision differ from other traditions of Christianity?
To answer that question would require a shelf of books. There are so many Christian traditions. But let me mention one aspect of Catholicism that affects the writer. All Christian denominations believe in original sin and humanity’s fallen nature, but Catholicism emphasizes the slow and difficult nature of the personal struggle toward salvation. The notion of suddenly being “saved” feels alien to a Catholic who sees life as a pilgrimage in which each step forward can easily be followed by a fall backward from grace. For that reason the great Catholic writes characteristically write about the experience of sinners rather than saints, often people of great spiritual capacity who have lost their way. O’Connor’s mass-murderer the Misfit is one example, as is Greene’s nameless whiskey priest.
Gioia is a Catholic and was the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. In the follow-up question he adds this insightful comment: “By comparison, American Protestant writing has often tried to present good people doing good things. Occasionally a masterpiece such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead appears, but it is a harder task to realize.” Gioia is thinking about poetry and prose but I’d wager his critique can be applied to other art forms. While he’s correct to point out the theological differences between Protestants and Catholics I’m not sure Protestantism is devoid of the theology that can lead to great art. But then he does level his critique towards American protestants and we, it must be admitted, have not always made the best art.
In the middle of the nineteenth century August Comte asserted with utmost confidence that science, by then, he said, essentially complete, had discredited and supplanted religion. A few years later, perhaps in part because of Comte had readied the way for the interpretation of it, Darwin’s theory of evolution was also widely understood to have discredited and supplanted religion. So the “modern” image of science as the anti-theology was established before Abraham Lincoln took office. At that time the germ theory of disease was not established.
The tendency to hold certain practices in ancient Israel up to idealized modern Western norms is pervasive in much that passes for scholarship, though a glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison is not always in our favor.
In the days before we adopted our son I asked those of you book-loving parents to chime in with your reading tips. I was particularly interested in how you find time to read with the (wonderful) addition of children. You had some great suggestions and as we near the seven month mark as parents I’m happy to report that books continue to be read in the Swanson home. Some of these books represent a genre previously unrepresented on our bookshelves: kids books of all kinds and sizes. And while some of you might appreciate Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, here are a few recent reads more suited to adult tastes.
Maggie brought home Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Home, for me a couple weeks back. Home is loosely intertwined with Robinson’s previous novel (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Gilead, though each work can easily stand alone. It’s a testimony to the author that backwater towns, old preachers, downtrodden families, and the occasional theological reflection are turned into such captivating and humane stories. I’ll reread both Gilead and Home one day and discover all sorts of treasure missed the first time. (As an aside, a good friend whose taste in books I trust, gave Gilead a try and didn’t make it even halfway. A reminder that all suggestions are subjective.)
I was sent a copy of Barbara Ehrenriech’s latest non-fiction, a book with a bright yellow cover and long name: Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promostion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America. Ehrenriech is probably best known for her 2002 book about America’s working poor: Nickel and Dimed. I’ve written a full review of Bright-Sided to be published elsewhere, but I’ll say that this book surprised me. The author does a fantastic job showing how prevalent the positive thinking movement is in America. You can probably tell from the title that she doesn’t think this bodes well for our country. After reading this book I’d agree and, as a Christian, also lament the impact the movement has had on many individual churches and the collective Christian witness.
I’m also dipping into a collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonders, written in the days following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. I’m most impressed by the author’s ability to ask big questions and make long observation at a time when most had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.
Finally, I’ve mentioned Welcoming the Stranger a few times on this blog. Rather than write a standard review of a book I hope many of you might read, I’ve emailed a few questions to one of the authors that I’ll post on the blog. Stay tuned.
How about you? Any noteworthy books on your night stand?